A leading infectious disease specialist said Wednesday he believes a large majority of Long Islanders will get infected with the COVID-19 virus amid what he called a viral "blizzard" fueled by the omicron variant.
"I think we are seeing it as we speak. Our rates are through the roof," said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of public health and epidemiology for Northwell Health. "I don’t know whether that is going to be 80% or 95% or 78%, but it’s going to be a very high number" of people who get infected.
"We’re in a blizzard. It’s like we’re in the middle of a viral storm," he added.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington has estimated that more than half of Americans will be infected by the omicron variant by mid-February, though not all medical experts believe that will occur.
Daily Positivity Rate
7-day Positivity Rate
Source: New York State Department of Health
Farber’s comments came a day after the acting commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration testified before Congress that she believes most Americans will be infected with COVID-19.
"It’s hard to process what’s actually happening right now, which is, most people are going to get COVID," Dr. Janet Woodcock said at a Senate hearing on Tuesday.
Also Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci told J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that "omicron, with its extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmissibility, will ultimately find just about everybody."
Farber said that same trend is happening on Long Island and throughout the state. "I don’t think there is any way you can hide from this virus," he said.
He noted that Nassau County is among the top seven areas in the country for infection levels, though other areas will have their "shot" at such top rankings as the variant races around the U.S.
What to know
A top infectious disease specialist says a large majority of Long Islanders will get infected with the COVID-19 virus amid what he calls a viral “blizzard” fueled by the omicron variant.
Top national experts and some universities are making the same predication nationwide.
But not all experts are convinced a majority will get infected here, though they said many people will.
Not every medical expert believes the omicron surge will infect a majority of Long Islanders, though they said throughout the entire pandemic a majority likely will get the virus.
Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, said that while case numbers are high, many people in the region have not gotten COVID-19 — and may never get it, if they continue to take precautions.
"There are lots of people who haven’t gotten it, and there’s lots of people who won’t get it," Clouston said.
Dr. Aaron Glatt, chair of the department of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, said it is impossible to say if the majority of Long Island will get infected with omicron, partly because not all cases are registered, but that clearly many people will.
Clouston said the danger in asserting a large majority will get infected could create a kind of fatalism, prompting people to give up on taking precautions, including getting vaccinated, because they think it is inevitable they will get COVID-19.
"The wave that they talk about I think gives a sort of fatalistic interpretation, like, ‘Everybody’s going to get it, so you shouldn’t worry about it. Nothing you do matters,’ " he said.
Clouston and Farber agreed that what people do will matter greatly. Farber said people who are vaccinated and boosted are not likely to get very sick from omicron, which while highly contagious also is less severe than delta and other variants.
"Everyone may get it, but only people that have not been boosted have a risk of winding up in the hospital and being sick," he said.
"There’s getting it and getting it. Getting it and having a mild cold for a few days is something you can live with," Farber added. "Getting it and being asymptomatic is fine. Getting it and being hospitalized and sick is a whole different story, and that’s happening to people who have not been vaccinated, or [have been] vaccinated and have not been boosted."
Fauci offered a similar viewpoint. "Unfortunately, those who are still unvaccinated are going to get the brunt of the severe aspect of this," he said Tuesday.
Hospitalizations up statewide
COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state have steadily increased, hitting 12,671 people on Tuesday, while 166 people died of causes linked to the virus — the highest number in nearly a year. Long Island and the state have broken records for daily new cases of COVID-19, and for positivity levels.
Many cases are going unrecorded because people are asymptomatic, or have mild symptoms and never get tested, or never report their home-test-kit results to authorities, Farber said.
The only other encouraging thing about omicron is that its high level of contagiousness is what will lead to it being largely extinguished, he said.
"As the virus runs out of people to infect, then the numbers will fall," he said.
The virus is starting to show signs of "plateauing" or reaching a peak, which could be confirmed over the next week, Farber said. Then the numbers will drop, though not immediately back to the levels seen last fall.
"I think the rates will come down significantly as they have in Africa and is starting to happen in England," he said. "I think they will come down quickly, but not perhaps as quickly as people want them to. It’s not going to happen overnight or in a week. It’s going to happen over a matter of weeks."
But hopefully by sometime in early February, Long Island will be in a much better situation, Farber said. "That’s absolutely my hope and my vision," he said.
Clouston said even after the omicron surge tapers off, that does not mean COVID-19 will be going away in the region. It is likely to remain for years to one degree or another, like the flu, and the best thing people can do now is prepare for the next surge by getting vaccinated.
"People are going to act as though this is the last wave" after omicron dies down, Clouston said. But "there’s going to be other waves. As we come out of this wave now is our opportunity to prepare for the next wave."
Meanwhile, for the sixth day in a row, the seven-day average for positivity in testing fell on Long Island, dropping to 24.33%, from a high of 26.76% nearly a week ago. The statewide level fell to 20.22%.
The number of new daily cases was 3,987 in Nassau and 3,942 in Suffolk — well below recent record highs of around 7,000, but also far higher than last spring when the region’s total was regularly below 100 a day.
The statewide total of new cases was 58,770, below the record 85,476 set on New Year’s Eve.
Despite the falling numbers — and amid growing hospitalizations and deaths — Glatt said another week of data would be needed to definitively declare the omicron surge has peaked.
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